The Last Bridge

The great Inca road which connected the vastness of the empire was built not only of monumental stones but also of humble straw. In a land incised by deep chasms and rushing rivers, roads are of little use without bridges, and the greatest Inca suspension bridges were made of straw rope. 

The most famous of these, 45 m long and suspended 36 m above the water, crossed the canyon of the Río Apurímac not far from the current road between Cuzco and Abancay. It was first accurately measured and photographed in 1864 by the American explorer George Squire and immortalized 63 years later by Thornton Wilder in his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. By then the great bridge was no more; sometime in the 1890s, after over 600 years of existence, it was abandoned and collapsed. In an environment of intense solar radiation and heavy rainfall during part of the year, straw fibre degrades rapidly so Inca suspension bridges had to be rebuilt on a regular basis. Today that tradition continues in only one place, at Q’eswachaka, also on the Apurímac, about 200 km upstream from the bridge described by Squire and Wilder. Every year in June, two weeks before Inti-Raymi, over 400 families from four communities join forces for four days to reconstruct their Inca bridge using ancestral tools and materials.

Each family is required to contribute 40 arms’ length of cord made of twisted q’oya, a tough flexible highland straw. Exactly 30 strands of cord are carefully laid out alongside each another and twisted again into a thicker rope, which is, in turn, braided into the heavy cables which form the floor of the bridge. The cables are laboriously tensioned in an impressive effort requiring the brute force of 30 men. Then the taut cables are woven together into a single unit and covered with chilca sticks. Thin cords are strung from the handrails, also made of straw rope, to the floor to form the sides of the bridge. Only the chacacamayoc (bridge-master) knows all the secrets of the process, handed down through countless generations of his family, and he constantly supervises the work of his companions. Throughout the construction period, a small but important group of Andean priests make offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and incense to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to propitiate a successful and accident-free effort. Even though women prepare most of the original cord, they are strictly forbidden to approach the bridge while it is under construction.

Once complete, the bridge is inaugurated with great ceremony and the event culminates with a day-long festival of food, drink, music and dance. In 2014, the skills and rituals related to the bridge's annual renewal were added to UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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